Greens, UKIP and the politics of anti-politics

I have said it before and I will most likely say it again, politicians are at an all-time popularity low. People are cynical about all politicians but this cynicism is mainly directed at the three largest parties. UKIP has managed to gain prominence by riding a wave of anti-politics. Their pitch is that if you do not like the three dominant parties then vote UKIP. Strangely enough, as this anti-political feeling is present on both the left and the right, why isn’t there a left wing party taking advantage of this?

The Greens would be the obvious candidate, they have an MP and have been around longer but why are they not using anti-politics to attract disillusioned voters? Disillusion with Labour, Lib Dems and Tories then vote Green? Why is no one saying this? Why is their approach too polite, “excuse me, have you thought about voting Green? Oh no you haven’t. Well I want bother you anymore then”. It could reinvigorate the left and take some of the momentum out of UKIP. 

The Green Party are reluctant to aim UKIP-style vitriol at the current political establishment. This is partly because it could come across as hypocritical. The Green Party, being a middle class Guardian reading movement, is part of the establishment. UKIP, being mainly made up of rich white men, is also part of the establishment but pointing this out has not lessened their appeal. It is because of this that I feel that the Green Party’s concerns that this could backfire are misplaced.

The larger problem with tactics of the Green Party is that they are not acknowledging that the people who want to vote UKIP have valid complaints. It is easy to dismiss those who plan to vote UKIP as racists, Europhobes or just plain stupid. However, it cannot be overstated how angry the average voter is at the main three parties. People are tired of being angry at politicians and are tired of this anger being ignored and now they are going to send a message that cannot be ignored by voting UKIP.

It is hard to tell where this disillusionment with mainstream politics has come from. Was it Nick Clegg selling out on everything he promised? The expenses scandal? Tony Blair? Both parties moving towards the centre? Constant media scrutiny meaning only the blandest politicians can survive? The rising number of politicians from privileged backgrounds? The rising number of politicians who have never worked outside politics? It is difficult to say, all these factors and more have contributed to voter disillusionment. What is clear is that there is not an easy fix. The Green Party could build a campaign which focuses on giving people hope that a vote can change things for the better but that seems like a lot of hard work so the Green Party is not bothering.

There is a belief on the left that sunlight and scrutiny will destroy UKIP, that exposing their racist behaviour, their expense claiming and their cronyism will cause voters to turn against them. This has not happened because most voters do not care that UKIP are crooks. They see all politicians as crooks and UKIP as the only ones who are honest about it. The truth about UKIP will not encourage angry voters to go back to the establishment parties if the root cause of their voting UKIP has not been tackled.

The Green party’s reluctance to use anti-politics is partly because they want to appeal to voters for different reasons than “tired of all the above, then vote for us”. They do not want to take advantage of voters being angry about the political establishment, they want to take advantage of voters being angry about the environment.

It would be short sighted to take advantage of the current high popularity of anti-politics if your party is based around a specific idea (i.e. environmentalism) which could be popular in the future. Certainly with the global environmental outlook worsening, popular support could naturally swing towards the Green Party. However until there is a ground swell of support for environmental policies the Greens are currently missing out on the anti-politics bandwagon.

There are several valid reasons why the Green Party would not want to behave like UKIP and exploit the politics of anti-politics but, the biggest mistake the Green Party (and the left as a whole) is making is not acknowledge that people who vote UKIP have a valid grievance. Anti-politics maybe the flavour of the month but voter is disillusionment is a big problem which threatens our democracy.

The left is dead and capitalism is broken

The Left is dead and the Right has won. It is easy to think this when we see the extent to which private companies have penetrated every aspect of our existence. People self-identify based on which brand of mobile phone they buy and queue for hours in sales. It’s easy to think of capitalism as a thriving ecosystem of consumer choice. Gone are the days when, under Mao, the Chinese government (allegedly) created one billion identical pairs of pajamas for the entire population. What we own has never been so varied, so well made and so cheap to purchase.

The problem is not all is well in the land of the free market, despite the rosy picture painted by rising GDP figures. Capitalism has stopped functioning as it was supposed to. Rather than being a model to deliver as much choice to as many consumers at the lowest price, it has become a means by which wealth is transferred to those who already have a lot of it. What we now have is not an economic system which encourages small business and innovation, but instead the buying up of as many assets as possible by a few oligarchs.  Ordinary people are not seeing the benefits of hard work. The rich are just seeing the benefits of being rich.

A generation or two ago, in the post-war boom, it was eminently possible for working-class people to attain middle-class, home-owning prosperity as a result of working hard. Many thousands did. For young people today, social mobility is a cruel myth.

Now, your ultimate status is more likely to be determined by how wealthy your parents were. Everything from the school you will attend or how healthy a child you will be will is simply a matter of money now as the safety net of the welfare state is gradually dismantled. If you’re from a privileged background, you’ll get an easy pass into top flight universities, and then your parents can bankroll increasingly important unpaid internships before you can start earning for yourself. Even after that, they will have to keep supplementing your rent due to how low wages are and if you live in London they will need to buy you a house if there is to be any chance of you owning your own property. If your parents cannot afford any of this, you are doomed to life of uncertainty and low paid jobs. If they can, then you will become rich and you will be in a position to help your own children get a head start in life. If this process continues after a few generations we will not have a class divide but the economic equivalent of Apartheid.

All of this is a result of our obsession with using the free market to make the allocation of resources more efficient. Sometimes with good intensions - and sometimes with a pernicious hatred of the poor or anything that is free - governments have let the ideology of neoliberal capitalism invade social systems which are supposed to prevent excessive wealth transfer to the few. The belief that we will all be better off with more capitalism has simply moved wealth up the social pyramid into the hands of the rich where it stays.

This should worry those of us on the left. Tony Benn warned about the dangers of unelected power and no one is less accountable than the global uber-wealthy. However this should also worry the Right, as we now have a crisis in capitalism. In the 1980s the Conservatives were the party of the small business owner, the entrepreneur, the working class person who wanted to increase their economic standing. Now they are the party of the billionaire, the vested interest and the wealthy, elderly English country gentleman – or at least that is how it is perceived. People no longer see capitalism as game that rewards hard work and clever thinking but as a competition that is fixed from the beginning.

At the top of the pyramid will be the children of billionaires who will never have to work for a penny. They will enjoy a life beyond anything we can imagine while the rest of us work harder to attain the most basic comforts. It hardly seems fair that some people can have so much through so little work under an economic system which is supposed to reward hard work. This is what capitalism has become.  Meanwhile the environment suffers, equality suffers, social harmony suffers but no one is stirred into action to address the source of this problem.

The crisis in capitalism affects us all (I am assuming no oligarchs are reading this) and addressing this problem should be the centre of our politics. The fix to our broken capitalism is to dial it back. The answer is not a soviet-style centralised economy, but a balanced economy where some goods are allocated by the free market and some are evenly distributed. The basic starting position for the capitalist competition needs to be made fairer. This means an equal distribution of food, clothing and quality school places for children. It means controls on housing, healthcare and University places so that no-one is given an unfair advantage over anyone else. The place for the free market should be for non-essential consumer luxuries which allow us to express our individualism and avoid the grim uniformity of Maoism.

The fix to broken capitalism is to stop holding the free market on high as a perfectly functioning economic model that will always deliver the best outcome; the only other people who believed so strongly in the infallibility of their economics were the Soviets, and it led to their ruin. It begins with simple things like not encouraging unnecessarily competitive behavior in children, and listening to legitimate criticism of where capitalism does not work. It also means not appropriating the starkest warnings against the dangers of unbridled capitalism as arguments in favor of the free market – as Boris Johnson did.

Capitalism has dented the Left by invading every area of life. However, acknowledging that capitalism is broken and striving to correct this will breathe new life into the Left. It hasn’t won – in many ways it isn’t even working. Just as the crisis of capitalism is the root cause of society’s problems, it should be the basis for our politics too.

The Left: Where are we now?

It is often stated that the left won the social argument of the 20th Century, whilst the right won the economic argument. Liberal democracy is the dominant form of government in the western world. Government is based on the idea of diversity, and the allocation of goods and services by the free market. When I think of most of the people I know, socially liberal and pro-free market is how I would describe their politics.

The socially liberal Tory government and pro-free market Labour opposition is a sign of the degree to which the majority of society believes the debate has been resolved. But the rise of UKIP is the reaction by a minority who challenge the liberal social consensus and say there is still a social argument to be had. They are the mirror image of myself, as someone who believes the economic arguments of the 20th century have not been resolved. 

So where does this leave the left? Since the death of Tony Benn and Bob Crow, there has been a lot a soul searching on the left. What do we stand for, now these giants of socialism and the trade union movement are no longer with us? What do we do when faced with the fact most people believe history has rendered our criticism invalid?

In the past we would look to the Labour party, however they have become increasingly acceptant of neo-liberal ideologies. Recently a major Labour party donor has said that there is little difference between the two main parties on economic issues. This comes on top of several leading figures of the progressive movement writing in the Guardian about the need for the Labour party to adopt new values.

This sounds like welcome noise to people who were concerned that the Labour party is losing its direction. I believe it is a good idea that the Labour party take steps to differentiate themselves from the Tories, however the values mentioned in the letter do not sound like an attempt to revive the debates of the 20th Century. Is this new trend towards localism where the left is now heading? The sentence “National government has a continuing strategic role to play but the days of politicians doing things "to people" are over” sounds to me like resignation that the Right won the economic argument.

This new focus on localism, empowerment and co-production does not fit snugly with a traditionally left wing world view. So where do people interested in reviving the capitalism vs socialism debate turn? 

There are still lots of people making valid arguments about the problems with free-market capitalism. Last month I saw Diane Abbott on Question Time perfectly describing the problems that an unregulated housing market have brought on a generation of young people, however, she stopped short of suggesting any measures to correct the problem. Presenting a solution poses the issue of what form that solution should take. Massive state sponsored house building program? More social housing to reduce rental pressure? These sound too much like reviving the debates of the 20thCentury, not popular with the majority of voters who believe the debate is settled. Do nothing, and hope the problem corrects itself, sounds too much a free-market solution. What solution does the left have to offer?

From a lot of prominent figures on the left there is much description of the problem (usually very eloquently) and not a lot of offering solutions. Or at least a solution that goes beyond an obvious platitude like “we need to come together to stop this exploitation now”.

The other half of the left offers the solution which voters consistently failed to support throughout the 20th Century. As much as I believe in socialist values, if a revolution (be it sudden like in Russia or a gradual process of people coming around to left wing views) where to occur it would have most likely have happened during the Victorian or Edwardian period when gaps between rich and poor were at their widest and poverty was at its most intense.

Where we are now on the left is that we are good at presenting problems with the current economic consensus but bad at presenting solutions people are likely to vote for. Usually this falls back into not presenting any solutions but simply describing the problem.

Some have decided to take this option by suggestion new values that should be the basis of left wing causes. New values like "co-production" mentioned above. They talk about new political divides, instead of left and right they talk about universalist/relativists divides or localism/centralism divides. These debates might be easier to sell to voters than the old debates of the 20th century, but they are dividing the already fragmented left by turning away from the socialism that is at the heart of the movement.

The left has a problem of where it will go when the mainstream believes its debates have been resolved. We are in a sorry state, with little direction, but we must avoid fragmenting further. That said, we need to find a way to relate our traditional struggle to new values. I have done a good job of describing the problem, now I need to offer a solution.